On November 14, Tunisian President Kais Saied arrived in Qatar for 3-day talks with Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani. The Qatari emir was the first head of state to visit Tunisia’s new president after his October 2019 election; Tamim traveled to Tunis in February for joint talks on “domestic, bilateral, Arab and regional issues.” That visit to Tunisia was Tamim’s fourth in four years, highlighting the strategic weight of the Tunis-Doha bilateral relationship. The meetings advanced plans for significant investment projects in Tunisia, increasing trade volume and a free-trade agreement, and partnering on international initiatives including a “Western-Islamic conference.” One of the top foreign policy issues discussed was the deteriorating security situation in Libya, a conflict that has intensified regional instability and threatens to spill over across Tunisia’s eastern border. As regional competition intensifies across the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia is likely to become another strategic fault line as efforts to increase strategic ties between Qatar and Tunisia spur competition with Gulf Arab state rivals Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Tunisia’s Political Crises and Economic Woes
The talks between Saied and the Qatari emir took place against the backdrop of a global economic recession, severe polarization in Tunisian domestic politics, deepening regional instability and geopolitical competition in the Mediterranean among European powers, Russia, Turkey, Gulf Arab states, the United States, and China.
Tunisia’s economy is shrinking due to structural weaknesses, such as a bloated public sector and high unemployment, exacerbated by the economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, declining oil prices, and, by extension, dwindling foreign investment and aid. Investment and aid from Europe, the United States, and Gulf states is a lifeline for Tunisia. Tunisia’s gross domestic product growth averaged only 1.5% between 2011 and 2019. The International Monetary Fund projected that Tunisia’s economy will contract by 4.3% in 2020, the worst recession since Tunisia’s independence in 1956.
The meeting also took place during a year of political turmoil in Tunisia. The 2019 elections put a political outsider with no formal party affiliation, Saied, in the Palace of Carthage, and resulted in a severely fractured Parliament led by Ennahda, a Tunisian political party with Islamist roots whose leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, was elected speaker of parliament. It took weeks for Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh to garner enough support to form a government, and then, after fewer than five months in office, he was forced to resign due to corruption allegations, igniting a political crisis. The landscape has stabilized since Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi won parliamentary approval for his technocratic government, but tensions persist between Saied and the Ennahda-led parliamentary majority. In Tunisia’s system, presidential authority for domestic policymaking is limited, giving Ennahda’s coalition in Parliament a more sizable role.
As the head of Parliament and the Ennahda party, Ghannouchi made a controversial visit to Turkey in January as well as telephone calls to foreign leaders like the head of Libya’s Government of National Accord, Fayez al-Serraj. These contacts with foreign leaders led to widespread criticism from opposition members of parliament and even calls for Ghannouchi’s resignation. Seven Tunisian political parties issued a joint statement after this call, arguing that Ghannouchi was trying to “bypass state institutions and drag the country into the Libyan conflict, in support of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies.”
Concerns were raised about who was really leading the country, and Ghannouchi was nearly removed from power in a no-confidence vote. Saied, in what was widely perceived as a rebuff of Ghannouchi’s encroaching influence over Tunisian domestic and foreign policies, gave a speech asserting that “Everyone must recognize that there is only one Tunisia and one president both nationally and internationally.”
Gulf Arab Ties and Influence
Since 2011, Tunisia has been a battleground for Gulf Arab states seeking to shape the domestic and foreign politics of the small, but strategic, North African country. The main cleavage is over the role of Islamist-associated parties in domestic politics, as well as Tunisia’s position on key regional issues such as foreign intervention in Libya’s war and regional competition between the bloc led by Turkey and Qatar on the one side and the UAE and Saudi Arabia on the other.
Tunisia’s uprising was the spark that ignited the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Ennahda has solidified its place as one of the most popular political parties in Tunisia since the protests, positioning it as the principal victor of Tunisia’s democratic experiment. Some Gulf Arab states, particularly the UAE, believe Ennahda is seeking to proliferate political Islam across the region through alliances with Emirati rivals, Qatar and Turkey. Consequently, Abu Dhabi views Islamist electoral legitimacy as a threat to regional stability as well as to its own regime at home. In contrast, Qatar maintains strong links with Ennahda and other Islamist-affiliated parties like Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, or AKP. Tunisia also shares a border with Libya, where proxy wars among major regional powers (including Gulf Arab states, Turkey, and Egypt), European powers (especially France and Italy), and Russia, are aggravating the security landscape in North Africa. This has placed Tunisia in the center of geopolitical power struggles over the strategic Mediterranean.
As the birthplace of the Arab Spring protests, Tunisia has symbolic value as perhaps the only success story of democratization in the Arab world. Many countries closely watch Tunisia’s political and economic trajectories and aim to cultivate closer ties with Tunis. Gulf Arab states have offered investment and support to varying degrees since 2011, often funneling diplomatic and financial support to specific political parties and actors with which they share strategic interests. There are ferocious propaganda battles over Tunisian politics in Gulf media outlets and across social media. Gulf media outlets, including Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, and Sky News Arabia, often give platforms and more favorable coverage to their preferred Tunisian politicians and parties. For its part, Tunisia has maintained official neutrality since Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt imposed a boycott on Qatar in 2017, echoing the positions of other Maghreb states like Morocco and Algeria. However, it struggles to assert its independence from the real and perceived influence of Gulf states, upon which Tunisia’s struggling economy remains dependent for crucial foreign aid and investment.
Prior to 2011, under the regime of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the UAE and Saudi Arabia were among Tunisia’s top trading partners in the region. After the 2011 protests and overthrow of Ben Ali, as well as the rise of the Ennahda-led coalition, Qatar-Tunisia economic ties flourished as Doha directed its attention toward propping up the country’s weak economy. In 2012, Qatar agreed to give Tunisia a $1 billion loan and pledged employment opportunities for 20,000 Tunisian graduates. Half of the loan went toward shoring up the Tunisian central bank’s assets (Qatar subscribed to $500 million in 5-year Tunisian treasury bonds at 2.5%) and the other half was earmarked for infrastructure investment. Qatar also promised to invest $2 billion in a refinery project for Libyan oil on Tunisia’s Gulf of Gabes coast, though this was canceled in 2014 due to concerns over Libya’s fluctuating oil supply. Officially, Qatar maintains an investment portfolio worth more than $3 billion spread across Tunisia’s tourism, banking, and telecommunication sectors. Additionally, the Qatar Friendship Fund, Qatar Fund for Development, and Silatech Foundation provide funding for development projects, especially for Tunisia’s unemployed youth.
Qatar is now the top Arab investor in Tunisia and the second highest foreign investor after France, but overall Gulf investment continues to be crucial to the country’s strategy to combat its economic woes. Varying levels of Gulf investment in Tunisia, as well as diplomatic support for Tunisia’s government, reflect much about Gulf state foreign policy priorities in North Africa. As American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Karen Young argues in Al-Monitor, “Intra-Gulf conflicts affect investment flows within the region … And their political interests will create priorities abroad for both foreign investment flows as well as aid and financial intervention in the form of central bank deposits.”
For example, at the Tunisia 2020 investment conference in November 2016, many noted a “weak Emirati attendance” in contrast to Qatar’s $1.25 billion financial package, Saudi Arabia’s pledge of $725 million, and Kuwait’s promise of $500 million. Tunisia analyst Yousef Cherif pointed out that “Tunisia 2020 looked like Qatar’s response to the UAE-organized Egypt Economic and Development Conference (EEDC) in March 2015, which had allowed the UAE to expand its influence in that country.” At this time, Tunisia was led by a consensus-government that joined Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes as governing partners, a move that Abu Dhabi considered anathema to its strategic interest in curbing the influence of Islamist parties. Even if the UAE’s preferred Tunisian party, Nidaa Tounes, was also in power at the time, the partnership with Ennahda was a source of concern because of its Islamist roots and ties with Qatar and Turkey. This investment conference also potentially reflected diverging strategies pursued by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Abu Dhabi’s foreign policy is more guided by combatting what it views as Qatari, Turkish, and Islamist regional influence, whereas Saudi Arabia appears more preoccupied by encroaching Iranian regional power. As Cherif contended, the different investment strategies pursued by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Tunisia hint at other policy disagreements over relations with Qatar and Turkey as well as conflicting approaches to Yemen, Syria, and Libya.
In November 2018, Tunisia was an important stop for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in his first foreign trip across the Arab world in the aftermath of the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Soon after this, King Salman bin Abdulaziz announced an $850 million financial aid package ($500 million for the budget and $230 for foreign trade) during Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December 2018.
Saudi investment and aid in Tunisia have remained largely stable despite the continued presence of Ennahda in Tunisia’s government. However, Emirati investment and aid for Tunisia have ebbed and flowed but have remained more limited as Ennahda continued to perform well in elections and as links with UAE rivals, Qatar and Turkey, expanded.
However, the global economic recession stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, coupled with low oil prices, is leading to significant declines in foreign investment, including from Gulf states. Carnegie Senior Fellow Sarah Yerkes argues that a decline in Tunisia’s Gulf investment is likely, and could even create space for global powers like China to fill the vacuum. The Tunisian Investment Authority has already announced that foreign direct investment declined by more than 14% in the first half of 2020 and that the economy shrank by more than 20% by the end of the second quarter.
Gulf Tensions Over Tunisia?
Tunisia increasingly represents a strategic corridor for geopolitical realignments in the Mediterranean. As the UAE increases its efforts to shape the outcome of the Libyan war, Turkey is not only expanding its military presence in Libya but also its economic and defense ties with Tunisia and Algeria, to such an extent that the UAE has threatened sanctions against Algeria for cooperating with “anti-Emirati lobbies.”
Given Ennahda’s continued influence over Tunisian politics, as well as growing Qatari investment over the last decade, it may seem like Tunisia is more aligned with the Qatar-Turkey sphere of influence, as opposed to the Emirati-Saudi orbit, but there are many domestic political actors vociferously fighting this trend, symbolized most powerfully by the rise of Abir Mouissi, a counterrevolutionary figure who was a party official in Ben Ali’s regime and now leads the Free Destourian Party. She calls for Ennahda to be banned and regularly castigates Islamist parties as terrorists. Despite only holding 17 out of 217 parliamentary seats, her party is currently leading in opinion polls. This likely points to an opening for the Emiratis and an opportunity to cultivate opposition to Ennahda in domestic politics and, by extension, a potential bulwark against Qatari and Turkish influence in North Africa.